Barcelona: Connected City

David Murphy

Murph MWCAnd so, one week on, the latest Mobile World Congress, the second at its new home, becomes an ever more distant memory with every passing day.

MWC has always been a show principally for operators, no matter how much the GSMA (the mobile operators’ trade body) which organises the event sometimes tries to play that down. But the OTT brands hogged the limelight this year, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg following in the footsteps of Google’s Eric Schmidt by delivering the Monday afternoon keynote, and Jan Koum, CEO of Facebook’s latest acquisition, WhatsApp, taking to the stage on Monday morning to assure delegates that WhatsApp was not about to change or start bombarding users with ads, and at the same time sending a shiver down the spine of those operators by announcing plans to launch voice calls next quarter.

It was brave of Mats Granryd, president and CEO of Swedish mobile operator, Tele2, who was sharing a stage with Koum, to say he welcomed the move. But I’m still not sure how much I believed him.

Key themes
The show is a monster, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to pick up on the key themes amongst the noise, but this year, without doubt, wearables took centre stage. There is doubtless a certain amount of bandwagon jumping going on in the wearables space; a feeling that "we have to do wearables because everyone is". I met more than one analyst, for example, who gets the concept of the connected device, but nonetheless wondered whether the world really needs a connected toothbrush.

But given the obsession with the quantified self, we can expect to see a glut of wristbands, pendants and other connected devices and associated apps over the next couple of years. My personal favourite in the wearables area was a pair of ski goggles from Oakley featuring a Google Glass-style heads-up display. Not the first time I’ve seen them – they predate Google Glass in fact – but a very cool piece of kit.

Elsewhere, it was clear that when we use the word “mobile” going forward, it should be with reference to consumers’ lifestyles, rather than to one of the many devices we will interact with in our daily lives. Cars, clothes, fridges, entire houses, and indeed entire cities are and will become connected, and you have to wonder how those brands that have still to build a decent app or mobile site are going to fare in this brave new world. For sure, those brands that are well down the road on their mobile journey will be in the best position to engage with the connected consumer through the many touchpoints that are about to present themselves.

Connecting the unconnected
Connecting the unconnected was another key theme, reflected in everything from Zuckerberg’s address to Mozilla’s SC6821 wireless chipset that will enable super-cheap smartphones (around $25) running the Firefox OS, to Nokia’s X range of Android handsets, which will all sell for under £100, and which are designed to help the ailing handset maker grab a share of the action in emerging markets. That may be so, but even at this price, there were plenty of smart handsets from Chinese makers which severely undercut the Nokias.

Speaking of the unconnected, it’s worth sharing with you my experiences of trying to stay connected while in Barcelona. I have come to love and rely on my Vodafone dongle over the past seven or eight years. It gets me online virtually anywhere, and in the days when I was responsible for posting every single piece of content on Mobile Marketing magazine, I don’t know what I would have done without it.

But using a dongle abroad is not much fun when the bill arrives, so before the trip, I called Vodafone to ask about a roaming bundle. The lady was very helpful and told me that for £3 a day I could go on the Euro Traveller package which would let me use my device as if I was in the UK, with the same allowances. Until I pointed out that the device in question was a dongle and not a phone, at which point she lost the ability to say anything sensible, leaving me to tell her what the deal was for a dongle, as I had had it last year.

So much for the dongle, I also needed something similar for my phone. I’m with O2 so called in my local store, to be told that O2 doesn’t do roaming bundles. Undeterred, I looked on the O2 website and saw that in fact, they do an O2 Travel bolt on. This costs £1.99 a day for which you get 15MB of data. Calls are subject to a one-off connection charge of 50p (seems excessive), but you can then talk for up to an hour. Texts are free to receive and 7p each to send.

I got the bolt on. 15MB did not seem like much but it would have to do. On exiting the plane at Barcelona and switching my phone on, the first text I got was from O2 offering me the very same deal I had already taken out. Great marketing guys. And of course, firing up Google Maps and leaving it fired up to track my progress in a cab from the airport to my apartment was enough to rinse (as I think the youth of today says) my data allowance. While all around me, colleagues on other networks had paid a couple of quid for unlimited texts, voice calls and data.

How is it, when you can barely squeeze a fag paper between the home network tariffs on offer from the various UK mobile operators, that the roaming bundles vary so wildly? And O2, seriously, if that’s the best roaming bundle you can offer, maybe you should get rid of them, as the man I spoke to in your shop thinks you already have.

Roaming, particularly data roaming, is still the elephant in the room when it comes to people using their mobile phones abroad. Mobile operators may despair at the success and popularity of apps and services like WhatsApp that bypass the mobile networks. When you look at their response in the shape of something like O2's Travel bolt-on, however, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they only have themselves to blame.